Have I mentioned I enjoy a good steampunk story? Yes, once again my friendly neighborhood Book Smugglers turned me on to a good book.
Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear. Tor, 2015.
Steampunk heads west in this ripping tale, told from the point of Karen Memery (yes, it is spelled differently in the book than on the cover), an orphaned teen turned “seamstress” in the high-quality Hotel Mon Cherie in Rapid City. Karen’s ancestors are Irish and Swedish, but the Hotel is staffed by women from all over the globe, include the transgender Miss Francina. Karen won’t put up with anyone being sorry for her – she knows her daddy wouldn’t have wanted this for her, but she’s got steady work with a good income and is saving to open her own stable. What she does worry about are the girls from India and China who are lured over with the promise of good jobs only to be housed in shabby cribs and abused with no pay or prospect of release.
The story opens with a bang when a known rescuer of such girls, Merry Lee, stops in one night with Priya, a girl she’s rescued from such a place, hotly pursued by the mean-spirited and violent Peter Bantle. Karen is already taken with Priya and anyway will do what it takes to defend her home – with the result that Peter Bantle soon has a much larger grudge against the Hotel Mon Cherie. Meanwhile, Priya is desperate to rescue her sister from the cribs, afraid that her sister will be targeted in revenge for Priya’s escape. And Karen meets Marshall Bass Reeves, a real-life African-American action type on a multi-state manhunt for someone who’s been murdering low-class prostitutes, a villain Reeves has successfully tracked as far as Rapid City. All of these threads start to pull Karen more and more deeply into things that are sure to cause her a world of trouble.
How is this steampunk? It is, from the giant, stand-in sewing machine at the hotel to sidewalks built far above ground level, with ladders to get up and down, as well as the usual dirigibles and such. While it’s marketed as an adult book, Karen is a teen herself and, in spite of the setting, there’s nothing really sexually explicit either in Karen’s professional or her personal life – though the girl-on-girl romance was very sweet. It’s a sure-fire hit for steampunk fans, and Karen’s assured and folksy voice combines with the worldbuilding and the exciting plot to make a wonderful story with lots appeal for all kinds of readers.