Tuesday, June 02, 2015

Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear

I didn't take any specific pledges for my reading this year -- I'm allergic to the things -- but I am trying to read more women and people not like me in various ways. And Bear has been one of the big holes in my SFnal reading for a decade now: something like a dozen of her books have looked very interesting, right back to the beginning of her career, but I've never quite managed to pick up one of her novels and read it, until now.

Karen Memery (ha, ha) is a "seamstress," in the Terry Pratchett sense, in the bustling and growing steampunky metropolis of Rapid City, somewhere vaguely Pacific Northwest-ish in around 1890. She doesn't mind the work too much, though she prefers women in her private life. And she tells her story in a compelling first-person voice, broad and strong as the American frontier, which is what attracted me to Karen Memory.

The plot itself is a bit thin and standard: Karen and her friends work for the good brothel in town, run by Madame Damnable, while there's an evil brothel-keeper, Peter Bantle, who runs horrible houses full of trafficked Asian women for the lower-level demand in town. (Unusually for a book that's mostly quite lefty and progressive -- one of Karen's co-workers is biologically male, and there's some nuanced comparative-religion talk -- Bear completely ignores the class issues here: the good whores are the ones who service rich men, and thus partake in the benefits of their wealth, and poor men are universally seen as vicious and degrading and dirty.) One night, the obligatory Robin Hood of the whores (feisty, female, Asian, deadly) shows up with a runaway, setting up the immediate conflict between Bantle and Damnable's girls.

Meanwhile, someone connected to Bantle -- maybe him, maybe not -- has been murdering low-level whores across the West like a roadshow Jack the Ripper. And that brings the semi-historical Marshall Bass Reeves -- tall, handsome, dark-skinned -- into town, to bring back that criminal, dead or alive. Meanwhile,  Bantle is running for mayor, hoping to unseat the current incumbent, who has a long-term arrangement with one of Damnable's girls. To top it all off, Bantle also has some mysterious new technology, to bend people to his will and do other dastardly things.

The story goes along as you'd expect: things get bad, and worse, and then even worse for Karen and her friends, until they finally win through in the end. It's popular fiction, and does what it sets out to do. There's very little that's surprising here, though Karen's voice is fun and appealing throughout.

I will say this: Karen Memory is close to the Platonic Ideal of a book the Puppies would hate: the main character is a strapping, tough lesbian; most of the important characters are women and/or minorities; and specific white men are the source of all of the evil and nastiness. It may perhaps have greater worth in that struggle, in the way that a cross is useful when confronting a vampire.

1 comment:

Ray said...

That's the thing about the Puppies - they SAY they want old-fashioned SF adventure fiction, plot driven, exciting, mass market appeal, does exactly what it says on the cover... which seems to be exactly what this is.
But it has a diverse cast so therefore it is message fiction, so none of that matters. If your characters are anything except straight white army chaplains you are preaching, and preaching is evil.

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