Friday Review: Karen Memery by Elizabeth Bear

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In this entertaining steampunk story set in 1900s Seattle, Karen Memery is an orphaned young woman making her living working in a high-class bordello. The girls are a tight-knit group, always looking out for each other in what is not an easy lifestyle. When a badly injured girl appears on their doorstep, they are pitted against the high-powered man who holds her indenture. And then a brutally murdered prostitute turns up in their trash heap, bringing a US Marshall to town who is tracking the killer. Add to that some political intrigue, a mechanical mind-control device, and a steam-powered sewing machine turned mech suit of armor, and you have a story full of action and twists that will keep you reading.

One of the better things about the book is that Karen and her fellow prostitutes are not glamourized. They don’t have an easy life. Sure, Madame Damnable’s house is a higher class bordello than some others in the story, and Madame doesn’t put up with any nonsense, either from her girls or their clientele. It’s still a hard life, and the story doesn’t pretend it isn’t. Bear also stays true to the social and political environment of the times. The US Marshall in the story is black, and his status as a Marshall doesn’t exempt him in any way from the racial prejudices of the times. At one point, he is even threatened with lynching. His partner, a Comanche, is forced to leave town because of the mistrust of Native Americans prevalent at the time. At the same time, these are some of the most memorable among the cast of characters.

Are there some things that might seem a bit far-fetched? Well, yes. That mech sewing machine, for one. If you stop and think about it, it seems a bit much, but honestly, it’s so much fun to see how it is used that I didn’t really think about it while I was reading. There is plenty of action, and the bad guys are quite unlikable. The early 1900s setting is believable and the language and characters fit the time period.

I found the story to be very good. It held my interest with the twists and revelations giving it depth. Anyone who likes a well-told story, with a strong steampunk element, and engaging, diverse characters should enjoy this one.

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