Around this time last year, a new stand-alone novel by Katherine Addison called The Goblin Emperor generated a lot of buzz around the fact that its main character was a good man, attempting to do the right thing and surrounded by people who were also good and helpful. It’s a great novel and one that makes you all fuzzy and warm inside because it is so nice.
This is to say: I feel that Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear is this year’s The Goblin Emperor.
“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.”
A steampunk-ish novel set in an alternate 19th-century Seattle that follows the adventures of Karen Memery and her friends as they fight off an evil that threatens their existence.
Karen is a seamstress—a euphemism for sex worker—at the high-quality Bordello run by Madame Damnable where most of the story takes place. It all starts one night when an injured girl is brought to the bordello asking for succour. She is not the only one who’s been attacked and this series of murders are only the start of a plot that is partly political but mostly completely villainous. Hey, there is a guy with a mechanical glove that controls minds. But that’s ok because Karen fights him from inside a sowing machine that doubles as armour. The sheer coolness of all of this is only topped by the characters and their diversity.
There’s a lot to admire here: this is a story that presents sex work as a job and doesn’t delve into male gaze—it’s set inside a bordello and yet there isn’t one sex scene in the entire novel. The closest it comes to is when it shows the beautiful, sweet budding relationship that develops between Karen and another woman, the super smart Priya. Then, we have a genius mechanic that works at the bordello, a trans woman who kicks ass, a Chinese lady warrior who goes around saving girls and a African-American U.S. Marshal who is investigating the crimes and ends up partnering up with Karen—on equal grounds too. Born into slavery, this U.S. Marshal’s name is Bass Reeves and he is by the way, the only real historical figure in the entire novel and said to be the inspiration for The Lone Ranger (whoa, historical whitewashing).
And then everything comes together in the end in a way that makes it clear that the entire plot has been woven together under Karen’s scrutiny for a very specific reason that makes everything even better.
Smart, creative and quick-witted are actually good descriptors for most of the people that inhabit the world presented here. Through Karen’s fantastic narrative and memorable voice we are introduced to a group of unforgettable disenfranchised characters who are resourceful, who stick together and who kick ass in the name of survival and friendship. It is super nice.
In Book Smugglerish: a highly recommended 8 out of 10.