Karen Memery

By Elizabeth Bear

(Tor, $25, 352 pages)

Who is this author?

Sarah Bear Elizabeth Wishnevsky is her real name. A Hartford native who now lives in Brookfield, Mass., she writes as Elizabeth Bear and has more than 30 novels and many short stories to her credit, mostly in the genre of speculative fiction, which is what science fiction is called these days. She says her earlier career pursuits included media industry professional, stablehand, a fluff-page reporter, maintainer of microbiology procedure manuals for a 1,000-bed inner-city hospital, typesetter and layout editor, traffic manager for an import-export business, and “the girl who makes the donuts at The Whole Donut at three A.M.” Whew. Bear won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 2005 and also has won two Hugo Awards for her short fiction, a Sturgeon Award, and the Locus Award for Best First Novel, and she is the author of the Eternal Sky series. Bear spoke at the annual CAPA-U (Connecticut Authors and Publishers Association) workshop day in Hartford this May.

What is this book about?

Bear says this about Karen Memery: “It’s a steampunk adventure set in a fictional city in the Pacific Northwest during the Alaskan Gold Rush. It stars a young woman who goes by the house name of Prairie Dove, which should give you an idea what she does for a living. She’s kind of a badass, and she has badass friends.”

(Steampunk, for the uninitiated, can be described as “the future as imagined through the eyes of the past,” and this genre can be seen in Mark Twain’s “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” and the early science fiction of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells.)

Bear’s novel is set in Seattle-like Rapid City during the late 1800s, a time of fanciful steam-powered machinery and airships in this alternate universe. Her heroine, Karen, for whom the word feisty seems to have been coined, is an orphan who works in a high-end bordello where the poor and the powerful meet. The action picks up when a badly beaten girl seeks safety in the brothel, pursued by a man who has a special glove that can take over a mind and force it to do what it wants. Then a murdered streetwalker turns up in the brothel’s garbage, adding a Jack the Ripper vibe to this piquant tale.

Why you’ll like it:

Sometimes the best and quickest way to find out whether you will like a book is to read a few pages to absorb the author’s style and hear the voice that will tell you the story. Here is the opening of Karen Memery:

“You ain’t gonna like what I have to tell you, but I’m gonna tell you anyway. See, my name is Karen Memery, like “memory” only spelt with an e, and I’m one of the girls what works in the Hôtel Mon Cherie on Amity Street. “Hôtel” has a little hat over the o like that. It’s French, so Beatrice tells me.

“Some call it the Cherry Hotel. But most just say it’s Madame Damnable’s Sewing Circle and have done. So I guess that makes me a seamstress, just like Beatrice and Miss Francina and Pollywog and Effie and all the other girls. I pay my sewing machine tax to the city, which is fifty dollar a week, and they don’t care if your sewing machine’s got a foot treadle, if you take my meaning.

“Which ain’t to say we ain’t got a sewing machine. We’ve got two, an old-style one with a black cast-iron body and a shiny chrome wheel, and one of the new steel-geared brass ones that run on water pressure, such that you stand inside of and move with your whole body, and it does the cutting and stitching and steam pressing, too.

“Them two machines sit out in a corner of the parlor as kind of a joke.

“I can use the old-fashioned one—I learned to sew, I mean really sew—pretty good after Mama died—and Miss Francina is teaching me to use the new one to do fancywork, though it kind of scares me. And it fits her, so it’s big as your grandpa’s trousers on me. But the thing is, nobody in Rapid City sells the kind of dresses we parlor girls need, so it’s make our own patterned after fashion dolls from Paris and London and New York or it’s pay a ladies’ tailor two-thirds your wage for something you don’t like as well.

“But as you can imagine, a house full of ladies like this goes through a lot of frocks and a lot of mending. So it pays to know how to sew both ways, so to speak. . . .”

What others are saying:

Kirkus Reviews says: “Steampunk: Something of a new venture for Bear, whose previous output has ranged from heroic fantasy to science fiction, often with an embedded murder mystery. By the late 19th century, airships ply the trade and passenger routes, optimistic miners head in droves for the Alaskan gold fields, and steam-powered robots invented by licensed Mad Scientists do much of the heavy (and sometimes delicate) work. In Rapid City on the U.S. northwest coast, Madame Damnable operates the Hôtel Mon Cherie, a high-class bordello, paying a hefty “sewing machine tax” for the privilege. Here, orphaned horse-breaker and narrator Karen Memery (Bear doesn’t tell us why the book’s title is spelled differently) works among similarly lively, engaging and resourceful girls. One night, Priya, a malnourished but tough young woman, arrives at the door carrying the badly wounded Merry Lee, who escaped from one of the grim brothels operated by brutal gangster Peter Bantle and has since made a career of rescuing other indentured girls from Bantle’s clutches. Madame Damnable’s steam-powered mechanical surgeon saves Merry’s life—but not before Bantle himself shows up, wearing, Karen notes, a peculiar glove that somehow can compel others to obey his commands. Worse, the following night the girls discover the body of a murdered prostitute nearby. U.S. Deputy Marshal Bass Reeves arrives with his Comanche sidekick, Tomoatooah; they’re tracking a serial killer who seems to have made his way to Rapid City. The story swiftly knots itself into steampunk-ishly surreal complications, with dauntless (and, by this point, love-stricken) Karen in the thick of the action. Supplies all the Bear necessities: strong female characters, existential threats, intriguing developments and a touch of the light fantastic.”

Her language, a celebrated feature in all of her writing, shines here in her descriptions of the setting…. Like George R.R. Martin, Bear presents third-person limited viewpoints from multiple characters, a strategy that allows her to delve deep into their heads without losing her own distinctive poetic narrative voice,” says The DC Spotlight.

Publishers Weekly says: “Bear’s rollicking, suspenseful, and sentimental steampunk novel introduces Karen Memery (“like ‘memory’ only spelt with an e”), a teenage “seamstress”—that is, a prostitute—at Madame Damnable’s Hôtel Mon Cherie in Rapid City. This Pacific Northwest city of an alternate 1878 is home to airships, surgical machines, and other mechanical wonders that can also be put to horrific use. As Karen meets and begins to fall for Priya, another sex worker who escaped from evil pimp Peter Bantle, they learn that Bantle has more dark plans than brothel competition. U.S. Deputy Marshal Bass Reeves and his Comanche partner, Tomoatooah, also tie Bantle to the gruesome murders of some of Rapid City’s most vulnerable women. Bear gives Karen a colorful voice, sharp eyes, and the spunk and skills necessary to scuffle with bad types as well as to win over people whose help she needs. Her story is a timeless one: a woman doing what is needed to get by while dreaming and fighting for great things to come.”

When is it available?

This memorable book is at the Downtown Hartford Public Library.

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