RogerBW's Blog

Karen Memory, Elizabeth Bear 18 January 2016

2015 vaguely steampunk science fiction. In Rapid City on the Pacific Northwest coast, Karen Memery is one of the "seamstresses" at Hôtel Mon Cherie (sic). It's not a bad life, but she's about to get in the way of a powerful man on his way up even higher.

The plot is a very old and very tired one: in a frontier town, prostitutes with hearts of gold come into conflict with the Big Man who already runs most of the town and wants to run more of it. And there's love at first sight. The steampunk elements are pleasing, but don't make a vast difference to the plot; they could be replaced by real technology of the late 19th century and the tale would work with only minor changes. Occasional passages such as:

Then we checked the barometer, which was uncharacteristically heartening, and I flipped open the morning paper to check the Mad Science Report. No experiments were scheduled, and no duels had been announced—at least among the Licensed Scientists—but you never knowed when a giant automaton was going to run rogue unscheduled. Mostly the city makes the inventors keep to the edge of town. Mostly. And there's always those as won't pay the licensing taxes, and while that's illegal, it's hard to track them.

turn out to have no real connection to the story, even if we do get a surgery robot, airships, and a "sewing machine" that turns out to be upgradeable to a battle-worthy mecha, among other things. It's Samuel Colt that made men equal, not James Watt.

What's more, the whole book is written in Karen's dialect, with lots of "could of" and "It weren't my house" and so on. It may well be authentic, but it's wearing, especially when she also casually uses words like "relict" and "Pyrrhic". The tone similarly veers back and forth between rollicking adventure and grim grinding explanation of how the west could be pretty horrid if you weren't a white man. (Presumably it could also be pretty horrid if you were, but that's not what this book is about.) The lowest point in the narrative has a great big flashing sign on it saying "lowest point, all up from here". Yes, it's great to have a diverse cast, but they don't act diverse: they act like prostitutes in a frontier-town brothel, because that's what they are and they don't have much room to break step with what the role requires of them. Most of them only have the narrative time to show off one or two personality traits anyway.

There's a constant sense of amazing things happening just around the corner, but they end up having happened to someone else. The pace is mostly slow and mannered, which occasional action sequences which feel almost as though they were written by another hand.

There is a lot of good stuff here even so, and I enjoyed the book while I was reading it, but it's frankly more evanescent, and therefore rather more disappointing, than I'd have expected having read the Jenny Casey trilogy and heard Bear talk about writing. And the title? Means nothing. It's just a misspelling of the protagonist's name that doesn't occur in the book itself.

If you're in the mood for a slightly thoughful romp and don't mind the dialect, you'll probably enjoy this book. Don't expect more just because it's by Bear.

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