What a marvelously fun book is Elizabeth Bear’s Karen Memory! Steampunk meets the old west in fictional gold rush town Rapid City on the west coast of the United States. From the very beginning the book charges ahead full speed with hardly a lull. And the cast of characters! There is Karen, our narrator and heroine, somewhere around aged seventeen, who was raised on a ranch by her father (her mother died) who gentled horses. Karen herself is quite the horsewoman but when her father is accidentally killed while working with a wild colt, Karen is left orphaned and unable to run her father’s ranch alone. She sells it all to pay his debts and moves to Rapid City where she gets a job working at a high class brothel.
Madame treats the women well and they all get a share of the profits. Karen is saving up so she can one day have her own ranch. In the meantime, life isn’t so very bad. Madame’s is like one big family and the customers are mostly regulars with plenty of money and include the mayor of Rapid City and many of the police officers.
Peter Bantle runs a brothel too but he does not treat the women well at all. Many of them are “hired” under dubious circumstances. Bantle has a taste for violence and so do many of his customers. He also decides he is going to run for mayor. He has created some gadgets to fight his enemies including a glove that electrocutes people and a mind control machine.
Bantle’s enemies of course turn out to be Madame and her girls.
Also in the cast is U.S. Marshall Bass Reeves. Reeves is a freed slave. He comes to town with his posseman who is a Comanche Indian. They are on the trail of a murderer who has been killing women, specifically prostitutes, across the country.
All the storylines come together eventually to create one great fun climactic battle with horses and guns and dynamite and a submarine with octopus arms and a sewing machine that is like no sewing machine you can ever imagine.
In the midst of this story Bear manages to focus on creating some wonderfully rounded characters including Miss Francina who happens to be transgendered and is never called anything but Miss Francina and referred to always as “she” and no one ever remarks on it at all. There is even a wonderful romance story between Karen and Priya, a girl slightly older than Karen who is rescued from Peter Bantle’s brothel. Priya and her sister left India to come to the United States to work and send money home to their family after their father’s business disastrously falls to pieces. But they get cheated and swept up by a broker who sells them to Bantle. Priya ends up being a “favorite” of Bantle’s and becomes familiar with just how much damage his electrified glove can do.
Karen is smart and savvy and ever so practical and matter-of-fact. And she tells a great story in a most colorful manner. Here is a little taste:
I waited, counting Mississippis, and made it to forty-one before the back door came open. Bless city houses and brass hinges and capitalist pork-barrel bastards who can afford staff to keep them oiled. The leather hinges on Da’s kitchen door would of let the door drag and in the wet of Rapid most metal hinges quickly learned squeak and stick, but this door opened in silent as a jaw gaping. And weren’t that an unsettling image?
She comes out with some delightful turns of phrase throughout the book that left me giggling and clapping my hands in pleasure. I can’t recommend the book enough.
This is the first Elizabeth Bear book I have read and I can tell you, it definitely won’t be the last!