Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear
I’m not even sure where to start with this review. I just loved Karen Memory. It’s got great characters, excellent representation, a flowing pace, fantastic worldbuilding, and just. Everything about it, really. Oh, and it also very intensely pushed me to think about some things it does – but more about that under the cut!
I tend to start with the characters, because they’re sort of concrete things to dissect. The main character, and the homo-extradiegetic narrator, is Karen Memery, a horse tamer’s daughter turned prostitute in a wild west city. Karen is a delight: she’s frank and honest, and one of the most delightful first-person narrators I’ve encountered in a long time. She’s the perfect choice: smart but plays her own wit down, observant, and non-judgmental. You really get into her head and grow to love her. Personally, I knew I liked her from the first sentence. I don’t know if it would take more time for others; I don’t see a reason why that should be, but people are different so there you go. With such a strongly focalized narrator, you of course get slightly less close to other characters, but they are so distinct (and a good number for remembering and keeping track of) that you grow fond of them. We have characters with various backgrounds and ethnicities, different skills, different dispositions, and all of them stand on their own.
The plot gets going when prostitutes start turning up gruesomely murdered, and two of them escape from one of the most disreputable whorehouses in town. Karen gets involved in solving the murders as well as in city politics. That might sound very unadventurous; let me assure you, it’s anything but. This is a steampunk setting, in a rather low-key manner (well, mostly) and it creeps up on you until you’re suddenly going full speed and there’s no stopping. While all this fun and exciting adventuring goes on, Bear balances it out with a more quiet but equally exciting and superbly relatable, small-scale courtship narrative. I will not go into that much, but it reminds me of Georgette Heyer’s Frederica in it’s delicacy.
Another piece of delicacy is the setting. As you can see from the afterword, Bear has once again done tons of research and knows what she’s talking about, and you really get the feeling even though she shows maybe 1% of her knowledge on the pages. Rapid City is alive with a tangibility that follows from the best kind of worldbuilding: the city is introduced through the casual way with which a local regards theirs, while at the same time the reader is struck by the small details that do not match our own world. I would not like to live in Rapid, and I wouldn’t last a day, but I enjoyed my stay nonetheless.
Now, two things I want to mention to bring this review to a close. One is that for a book about a bunch of prostitute, there is very little sex in it. I cannot say how delighted I am about that: they are presented as people who just have a job and pursue their own interests when they’re not working. A+ – more of this please! Another thing is the narration. I mentioned already that it is homo-extradiegetic, which means that the narrator talking from outside of the story but part of the events. You know, like, say, Dickens’s Great Expectations. (Actually, one could argue whether Karen is an extra- or intradiegetic narrator, but perhaps I will not get into that now.) This does certain things within the narrative, and this would require more inspection. Perhaps an essay one day!
Karen Memory gets full five stars from me, without hesitation, and the title of my favourite Bear novel that I’ve read to date!