I would be lying if I said I read this book for reasons other than a) it's by Elizabeth Bear and b) it's received some good attention, particularly in a few of my Goodreads groups. I know this because I struggle to find something compelling to talk about in this review. There's not really one thing that hooks me about this book. It's not a time period I'm interested in. The whole "wild West" motif is something I usually don't go for. But I gave it a try, and while I didn't love Karen Memory, I didn't hate it either.
The setting is remarkable in its understatement. There's a somewhat steampunky alternative-universe happening here. Bear's Rapid City is a merger of a lot of real or imagined places in nineteenth-century America, just as several of her characters are drawn from real or imaginary people. But this isn't straight-up historical fiction, because there are also airships and Mad Scientists and advanced submarines. For the most part, these larger-than-life science-fictional elements are background for the story--Karen talks about Mad Science, but Mad Scientists don't figure so prominently in the plot. I respect it when an author can create a world and resist the urge to play with all her toys.
Of course, a little Mad Science leaks in there--I would be disappointed if it didn't. We get to see an awesome submarine commanded by a Russian version of Captain Nemo. And Karen, though no Mad Scientist herself, manages to co-opt a steampunk sewing machine into a weapon of war. So there's that.
The depth of the story has to come from the characters, of course, and specifically the narrator. Karen is utterly frank about her life as a sex worker. At the same time, however, this work doesn't figure as prominently in the story as it might have. Bear stresses that prostitution is something Karen does, not something she is--it's a practical profession and part of a practical choice, one that allows her to save more money than she would in a domestic position. This isn't the only reason someone might be a prostitute, of course, and Bear shows any number of different experiences women have in the sex trade. This is what happens when you have multiple women characters: instead of having one or two women stand in for all women, you can depict a more diverse and nuanced version of women. In contrast to Karen's fierce independence, we have Priya and her devotion ot her sister, or Madame Damnable's hints of weariness. And of course, there's Miss Francina, whom we learn early on is trans--but no one sees this as a big deal.
So kudos to Bear for creating a story that is historical fiction yet still managing to have main characters who are just as, if not more, progressive as some people in our present society. I think "historical accuracy" is a terrible justification for a lack of diversity in a story, and Bear proves diversity is not detrimental to telling an action-packed thriller. There is prejudice and hatred here, of course: plenty of racism and misogyny, some based in history and some just plain evil. But these sources of conflict are even more meaningful because of the progressiveness of the characters.
I was a little worried from the description inside the cover that Karen was going to play amateur sleuth alongside Marshal Reeves. Not that I have anything against prostitutes moonlighting (daylighting?) as detectives. But amateur detective hour isn't my favourite. Fortunately, Bear puts a slightly different spin on things. Karen is more of an ally to Reeves: they share some mutual interests and manage to pool their resources. In doing so, they discover that their mutual enemies are embroiled in a far larger plot than murdered and missing women.
This escalation fuels a carousel of increasingly intense action scenes. From confrontations in the bordello to infiltrating the enemy's house to fighting off a Russian submarine with a sewing machine, Karen Memory certainly doesn't lack in bombastic moments of awesomeness. These are contrasted by quieter moments, though. All in all, perhaps that's what is most impressive about this book: it is remarkably balanced. Keep in mind that I haven't always had awesome experiences with Bear--in fact, I'd characterize her as more miss than hit with me.
Karen Memory is a hit. It isn't a home run, again, more because the whole wild West aesthetic doesn't appeal to me. But it's one of the better Bear books I've read so far, and in general, if steampunk or wild West speculative fiction is your thing, you're going to be happy about this book.