Karen Memory - Elizabeth Bear

Being perfectly honest, I think in other circumstances this book would have got 4 stars from me, but the egregious use of 'could of' when they meant 'could have' made my inner English teacher wince so frequently I couldn't allow it to pass by without comment. Anyone who's been reading my reviews will know I have An Issue with first person narrative, to the point where I have recently used Amazon's 'Look Inside' feature to check the first few pages and see if something is written in the first person before deciding whether or not to buy it. I hadn't done that with Karen Memory, so I was unpleasantly surprised to discover that this was the case and that wasn't the best of starts...

 

Karen Memory is set in faux-19th century Seattle (or at least a version of the town that will become Seattle) and our eponymous narrator is a prostitute who finds herself in the middle of a number of events - there are folks making a good living out of exploiting what are essentially trafficked women at the docks and we meet a couple of those women early on when a rescue mission for one of them backfires and they seek sanctuary at the house where Karen lives and works. There is also a serial killer on the loose, targetting prostitutes, and a US Marshal has arrived in town hot on their trail (said Marshal being Bass Reeves, who many believe to have been an inspiration for the character of the Lone Ranger). Thirdly, there are all sorts of political shenanigans going on in terms of who will control the town and how they'll use that new-found power over everyone else. 

 

This is all set in a world which has a lot of steampunk elements to it - airships and clockwork or steam-driven mechanisms for everything from medical work through to construction. However, unlike many steampunk books, the people who inhabit that world are diverse in background and experience, though some licence has been taken with what was historically going on. 

 

As for Karen herself, she's got plans for her future and they come to include one of the women who's been rescued from the 'cribs' in which they were forced to prostitute themselves. I'm still struggling a little with the dichotomy in this book between those settings and the place where Karen works, which she at least seems to accept as being very different. From an outside perspective, the difference is in the surroundings in which things happen rather than the acts that take place there, and having sex because you have no other choices is still coerced. So, probably not one that I'm going to re-read, even before you get into the whole first person issue, but entertaining enough, particularly in the appearance of Bass Reeves and his posseman.